The Quality Common To All Forms Of Art
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Fundamental Principles — Design — Proportion — Balance — Symmetry — Rhythm — Pattern — Spotting or Notan — Harmony — Contrast — Taste — Style and Styles — The Grand Style — The Intimate Style — Tradition and its Value — Imagination — Beauty the Touchstone.
ALL works of art, whether poems, musical compositions, works of architecture, or sculpture, or painting, will be found upon analysis to have fundamental traits, qualities, principles, in common, such as: Design, Proportion, Balance, Symmetry, Rhythm, Pattern, Harmony, Contrast, Taste, Style, Beauty. Some of these are more evident in some forms of artistic expression than in others—as for example, Pattern, which is more evident in the art of textile weaving than in Music, although in the larger sense Pattern is to be found in Music as well. Style and Beauty are the products of Design, Proportion, Balance, Symmetry, Rhythm, Pattern, Harmony, Contrast ; and Taste is the selective quality which combines these elements in such a manner as to pro-duce Style and Beauty.
While these traits or principles are more evident in some forms of expression than in others, no work of art soever can exist without Design, for Design is the means by which the underlying beautiful thought that is art, the underlying aim or intention, is to be made manifest to other minds than that of the artist. Design establishes the proportion of the parts to the whole or to each other, arranges the elements so that they are in Balance or are Symmetrical to each other, disposes them in such relations that they produce a sense of Rhythm or cadenced spacing, and create a Pattern, more or less obvious, more or less concealed, as the designer desires.
It is evident that while Design must exist in a work of art, it may not be a successful or an interesting, a tasteful or a beautiful Design. The original aim may have been admirable, but the Proportion, Balance, Rhythm, or Pattern, may be badly worked out or combined. On the other hand, the primary thought may have been commonplace, and no amount of ingenuity in the arrangement of Proportion and the rest can make its expression really interesting or distinguished. We have defined art as a beautiful thought made audible or visible; but we must recognize that there are degrees of beauty in thought, as well as in expression.
In beginning a Design that is to make the thought visible or audible, whether a cathedral, a picture, a book, or a symphony, the first thing to do is to establish general Pro-portions: of a cathedral, relative length, width, and height; of a picture, width to height; and of a book, that portion of the field with which it deals that it is proposed to cover. The second step is to determine, tentatively at least, the pro-portions of the parts to the whole, as : in the facade of the cathedral, the size and shape of the doors and windows; in a landscape picture, the amount of sky in proportion to the earth shown; in a book, the content and relative importance of the chapters. The third—and this is a process that goes on throughout the act of producing a work of art—is to adjust the proportions of the parts to each other until they are brought into a Harmony as nearly satisfactory to the artist as may be. Proportion, then, may be defined as the relation, as to size, quantity, value, or importance, between the parts and the whole, and of the parts to each other. Proportion is also a positive quality, rather than relative, inherent in the whole as a whole ; that is to say, irrespective of the relations of parts, the whole may be a well-proportioned shape or the reverse.
To balance is to place, or keep, in equilibrium. In a work of art, Balance is a very subtle and difficult thing to describe. It is, of course, arrived at very differently in the several arts. In Music, volume of sound would be balanced by volume of sound perhaps of another nature or quality so as to produce equilibrium. Balance, in Architecture, in Sculpture, and in Painting, is attained by the counterbalancing of one mass by another, whether of color or of form; by the opposition of lines; by such disposition of the elements of the Pattern as to stabilize them and leave them in a state of apparent rest. Symmetry is, of course, the most obvious form of Balance; when two objects, just alike, are placed on either side of an axis and in the same relation to that axis, they are symmetrically disposed, and they exactly Balance. Balance may, therefore, be considered as referring principally to bodies or shapes unequal in mass, or color, or volume.
Rhythm is a system of accentuation of certain parts or elements of a Design to produce, in Architecture, Sculpture, or Painting, the equivalent of musical Rhythm, or measured movement such as we see in dancing. It is also an arrangement of lines and masses in such relations as to produce the effect of a flowing transition from one line or mass to another. In Architecture one of the many forms of Rhythm is an arrangement of windows in groups recurring at intervals, as : two windows grouped—a space—three windows grouped—a space—two windows again—a space—three windows—space—and again two windows.. We say that the windows are rhythmically spaced in such a case. In Figure Painting or Sculpture another form of Rhythm, and only one of the many, would be an arrangement of the lines of the bodies, limbs, and drapery, so that the lines or the masses of light and shade flow into each other, or repeat each other, and tend to unite, to tie together in the professional phrase, the entire composition. Repeated line is one of the elements of Rhythm.
Pattern may be defined as the distribution of masses of color or form in agreeable space- or mass-relations. It is also, used in another sense, the interweaving or disposition of lines in such a manner as to produce definite figures in which the lines either count as lines, or as defining the out-lines of shapes or figures. But it is in the former sense it is to be chiefly understood as applying in this discussion. Akin to Pattern is the term Spotting—approximately what the Japanese call Notan. The term is almost self-explanatory, and means the placing of the important masses in a drawing or painting with relation to each other. It has an intimate relation to Balance.
Harmony is an agreeable and satisfying arrangement of line, of color, of light and shade, of mass, of Balance, Rhythm, Proportion—all the elements of a Design.
Contrast is the opposition of light to dark, width to height, great dimensions to small, length to brevity, a staccato accent to a measured cadence, and the like. The elements of a Contrast may be either harmonious or inharmonious with each other.
In dealing with these principles, definitions cannot be exact, for the qualities interfuse and partake sometimes of the characteristics of another, sometimes of several, and there is thus between each and the others a shadowy border-land that defies definition. And, after all, after the most searching analysis and the most acute definition of the elements of a work of art, the all-essential spirit of Beauty in it eludes all analysis, all definition. Of Beauty, I decline to attempt any definition. I am with Denman Ross in this; and recommend his Theory of Pure Design to the serious student who wishes to know more about Balance, Rhythm, and Harmony.
Taste, in the artist, is that selective judgment which combines the elements of Design into a beautiful whole; it is thus, in the artist, an active quality. Taste, in the observer, is a passive quality; it is the trained judgment which perceives the beautiful or admirable qualities the artist has given a work of art. Taste in the artist or in the observer is not necessarily native or instinctive. It may be cultivated to the most sensitive degree from beginnings, or apparent natural aptitudes, the least promising. Its standards change from decade to decade, from century to century. It may be broadly stated that at periods when Taste is narrow and exclusive it is usually at low ebb, and that when it is catholic, broad, and inclusive of all that is best in the world, it is in its best estate. A highly cultivated taste embraces much that one less developed rejects. It is quite impossible to de-fine Good Taste and Bad Taste; usually good taste is one's own, and bad taste the other fellow's. The student of art, whether layman or professional, is in better case just now than at any other period of American history because Taste is broad and all-inclusive, and facilities for the study and comparison of the arts of the world have been multiplied; and the formation of a sound and cultivated taste is, therefore, possible to any one who will take the trouble to ac-quire it by constant, serious study of what, by the test of time and the opinion of the best judges, are considered as the masterpieces of each of the great epochs of artistic history, in Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Literature, Music—all the forms of artistic expression.
A thoughtful analysis of the past will reveal the artist as responding to a pressure exerted upon his faculties by the movement of events in the society of which he was a part, and all artists reacting in a generally similar manner to that pressure; that reaction, that response, issued in Style. The pressure was the result of a general and quite uniformly distributed Taste, of that general agreement upon modes of life and thought which is the flower and the mark of a homogeneous and ordered social state. We must differentiate between Style and styles; by the latter we mean the so-called historic styles or periods. Style is difficult to define in the sense in which the artist uses it. We may say that when a thing has Style it has elegance, character, distinction. When a woman is described as having style, every woman knows what is meant; it does not mean that her clothes are necessarily in the latest fashion ; it is some felicity in the choice of color, of material, something in the cut, and, above all, something in the way she wears them. Style is above the fashion of the moment. The note of Style runs through all the best work of all the great periods. There are a few men in the history of art whose conceptions are so far above the average, whose powers of expression are so adequate to their conceptions, whose work has such power, such distinction, such lofty character, that we say such men possess the Grand Style. Phidias, Dante, Bramante, Michael Angelo, Shakspere, Milton, Beethoven, are such men. Many lesser men, while failing to attain the ultimate distinction, give us beautiful things; others merely exhibit themselves as empty, pretentious, and dull; and there are many, many more who set themselves no such high goal as that of the great masters, but, like the Dutch masters such as Ver Meer of Delft, one of the greatest painters of all time, confine themselves to the portrayal of simple, intimate themes exquisitely wrought, and contribute to the sum of the world's beauty. To be lifted up to lofty summits by Shakspere and Angelo is a tremendous spiritual experience; but the vast average of mankind finds it difficult to breathe that atmosphere for long, and finds repose and refreshment at lesser levels with the many who possess Style, if not the Grand Style, like Robert Louis Stevenson and Jan Ver Meer.
There is an immense deal of respectable, craftsmanlike work in the world that is nevertheless quite without Imagination. Imagination does not merely mean the creation of new things or themes but means also the investiture of old or familiar themes with a new meaning, a new life. A portrait-painter without Imagination may give us the physical facts of the sitter with astounding accuracy; the physical likeness, feature for feature, may be perfect, but, lacking Imagination, he is unable to divine, to imagine, the spiritual man or woman behind the veil of flesh and blood, and the picture leaves us cold. Sometimes in the columns of a news-paper we will encounter, in the midst of dull recitals of matters of fact, a story lighted up from behind as it were by a flash of Imagination. Imagination is not entirely the original beautiful thought; it is also the power to clothe the thought, and present it, in terms of interest and distinction.
We may not close this chapter without a note upon Tradition and its values. Art must develop much as language develops. No man having something to say invents a new language to express his new thought; he uses the parts of speech familiar to us all, uses the alphabet of his race, and with these simple elements in new combinations makes us burn or shiver, tremble or exult. And so each art must respect the traditions of its past and develop new things with the old sap, just as new leaves grow on old trees every Spring. The leaf does not despise the roots hidden deep in the earth over which it quivers in the light of a new day.
And above and beyond all these attributes hovers the Spirit of Beauty, elusive, desirable, not to be defined, to whose service the artist dedicates his life, before whose shrine he lights and guards the flame of sacrifice in the hope that she may smile upon his work, giving it that last irradiation without which there is no art.